As we delve into the policy-making phase of Canada Beyond 150, I find myself reflecting on what a feminist government actually looks like. Beyond the superficial rhetoric and associated jargon, what does a feminist government mean to me? The stakes of not delivering on this complex, but important agenda are incredibly high—the possible consequences could bring more exclusion and inequality, especially for marginalized and vulnerable populations. And while I regret that this post doesn’t shed light on how we can achieve a feminist government, I want to share three key understandings that have emerged from many hours of consultations during this incredible journey with the Canada Beyond 150 feminist government team.
Understanding #1: Feminist government is really about an inclusive government.
Unfortunately, any debate around feminist government tends to focus exclusively on issues relating to gender equality. I’m not suggesting that this isn’t an important component of the feminist agenda, but this topic often triggers a conversation only about women, white women especially. Apart from gender equality discussions, women are largely absent when we talk about everything else. This includes debates around the economy, healthcare, the environment and science to name a few. Other groups, such as women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, queer and transgender women, and any other women falling outside of the societal mainstream are even more marginalized throughout discussions, including those about gender equality. This exclusion could not be further from what feminism stands for. At its core, feminism is about creating a society in which every member has the space to claim and access their rights regardless of sex, age, colour, status, ability, sexual orientation and social class.
All this leads me to my first understanding: A feminist government is really about an inclusive government. It’s about being inclusive of women, girls, men and boys. It’s about being inclusive of the multiple identities that individuals hold and which shape the way they experience the outside world. It’s acknowledging that individuals experience oppression in varying degrees of intensity and in varying configurations. A feminist government thinks about how to reverse oppression by changing attitudes and breaking down barriers. It goes beyond tackling issues of equal pay. It’s about access to healthcare, affordable housing, decent jobs, affordable child care, and living free from violence, exploitation and abuse to name a few. A feminist government is truly about fighting gender inequality and injustice for all members of society, in every sector, in both public and private spheres, from the macro to the micro levels. In order to create fairer and more inclusive societies, we need to broaden the conversation from feminism being only about gender equality and applicable only to women and girls.
Understanding #2: Men and boys are an indispensable component of the feminist government equation.
My second understanding is that, in order to deliver on any feminist government agenda, men and boys must recognize that they play a crucial role in achieving gender equality. While equality between women and men has long been recognized in international law, and articulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea that men and boys play a vital role in realizing this principle has only recently gained traction. Socially constructed definitions of masculinity and men’s gender identities and roles are linked to patterns of gender inequality. In short, men are part of the problem and therefore a crucial part of the solution. As primary decision makers and leaders, many men play a key role (often subconsciously) as “gatekeepers” of the current gender and social order.
Moving towards a more equal, inclusive society therefore requires men and boys to think and act in new ways, rethink traditional images of manhood, and reshape relationships with women and girls. Substantive social change is only possible if we work to change attitudes and behaviours among men and boys that are perpetuating the status quo. Among other things, this change involves ensuring gender equality initiatives involve women and men as active and equal partners. This parity is especially important when it comes to child care and other forms of emotional labour.
Equally, men are also victims of gender inequality. For example, men are at a greater risk of homelessness and suicide, and therefore can benefit from targeted interventions. Research has shown that societal pressures to be aggressive and conceal vulnerabilities can have negative effects on men. Strict gender role expectations for men to be assertive, dominant, and powerful, can manifest into instances of toxic masculinity. Often upheld by peer pressure and bullying, toxic masculinity has shown to have negative physical and mental health outcomes among men.
Understanding #3: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Redistribution of power and resources is tricky business. Leveling the playing field, particularly for individuals and groups typically on the fringes will require shifting the balance of power from those who have it to those who don’t. It’s about reforming decades-old legislation, policy, programs and customary traditions that typically benefit men and help to ensure their dominance. This process will inevitably disrupt the social order, but this is the price of equality.
At its core, it’s about men giving up real power, not just declaring themselves feminists on social media. So how do we do this? We can wait around for legislative and policy reform or we can start changing the social fabric as individuals through everyday actions. What does this look like? It starts with having difficult conversations that challenge men to understand their privilege and complicity in maintaining the status quo. It’s about calling them out when they use denigrating and abusive language. It’s about rightly identifying what constitutes rape, abuse and harassment. No more euphemisms like “domestic dispute,” “sexual misconduct” and “inappropriate behaviour.” It’s about taking a stance, boldly claiming our feminism and calling out friends, peers, colleagues, brothers, fathers and family members. And that’s going to be really uncomfortable to hear (and do), but we shouldn’t be trying to make it less uncomfortable. Let me be clear. When we justify bad choices, we make it harder to achieve equality and justice for all members of society. And this is my third learning: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.